In the dark times, will there be laughing? 

Convener(s): Daniel Bye

Participants: Alice Massey, Rose Biggin, Sarah Corbett, Cindy Oswin, Louise Platt, Julia (Jools) Voce, Fionn G., Rod Dixon, Anna Povuscensky (sp.?), Eva Liparova, Alex Swift, Rhiannon


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

No account of what was said can do justice to how thrilling this session felt. A huge thanks to all who took part (Dan).

A brief discussion about why we were at this session:

  • some people simply wanted to hear a few jokes. We didn’t tell any.
  • some wanted to get under the bonnet of comedy and see how the engine works. Even if we couldn’t drive the car at the same time.
  • also some concern about the purposiveness about comedy. It’s too easy for it to be a valve, a safety vent and thus be escapism. But can we use laughter to power the train?
  • the disruption we enjoy


Some possible historical examples of this:

  • the king’s fool
  • the medieval lord of misrule
  • the mardi gras/carnivalesque

But all of these are ultimately socially-sanctioned. However much they are or aren’t speaking truth, power allows it and thus can it really disconcert power?


Laughter is a group of people saying “yes” to an observation about the world.

  • this can shift our view of that world, or cause us to revise it
  • It can make the unthinkable thinkable (so maybe those fools of misrule have an impact after all)
  • But it can also be a banal, even false observation. At this point some spleen was vented about Michael McIntyre.


Laughter is a rupture, a challenge to our view. After the laugh, we can become anything. Possibly.

  • discussion of a Carol Ann Duffy poem about a giggle in a school that spread and spread and couldn’t be stifled, so the school had to be shut down.


The status of laughter.

  • comedy is more popular than it’s ever been
  • wit in France for a time occupied an incredibly high social status
  • The “clown” comedy characters in soap operas tend to be those of the lowest social status. Are we socially addicted to thinking of the poor as idiots?
  • It’s beautiful when we’re laughing at the idiot in ourselves, not at a simpleton who’s the butt of the joke.
  • Those at the bottom of the pile have more perspective than anyone else. They only have to look in one direction to see the world.


A couple of examples

  • Red Ladder’s winter tours. A kind of adult pantomime, with the enormous liberation of an audience being able to shout “bastard” at characters, and have a sing.
  • Jools talked about the “Knees Up”, which uses music hall to similar effect. The next one is the Right Royal Knees Up, to coincide with the royal wedding.
  • When clowning at climate camp, the audience becomes the cops. When they laugh, we win. And they do. As I’m typing this I’ve had a text from a friend in Egypt about exactly that happening there.


In the dark times, we must keep laughing:

  • To pack in making work because no-one is funding it is to throw our toys out of the pram.
  • Nothing would suit the system more than for its challengers to pack up and allow a few more people to sit in isolation before the weapon of mass distraction (Rod)


We love comedy because it breaks the fourth wall:

  • There isn’t a wall. We’re all in the same space.
  • The extraordinary power of a performer saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. It always provokes laughter because it’s so bizarrely unconventional to acknowledge that we’re all in the same room.
  • A show without laughter doesn’t reflect our experience of the world.


Laughing around things that aren’t normal subjects for comedy:

  • some talk of death and illness
  • talk of broken glasses at the horrible climax of Stoning Mary


The beauty of work that manages to make us laugh and cry at the same time:

  • the power of this bivalency to force us to address what’s happening to us.
  • Example: the final scene of Mother Courage, which has huge political stakes, deep tragedy – and three soldiers who are pretty much the Three Stooges. Without them the scene would be pretty normal theatre. With them the laughter constantly jolts us and asks us re-assess what we’re watching.


We decided to get together and explore this last thing in particular, this three-way tug between comedy, tragedy, and political agency, in practical terms. This is a project I’ve been toying with for a while. This discussion has enabled me to figure out how. Thanks all.